Making It Right
In The New York Times February 6th on pages 20 and 21, across from each other, there were two tragic stories centered around the themes of sex, race and power. You might call them love stories, though they were definitely not Hallmark card or Harlequin romances.
The vast amounts of popular romance-focused drama we absorb through TV and movies in this culture tends to keep to narrow parameters, generally avoiding love stories that are too complicated, challenge established cultural assumptions or that threaten some area of middle-brow decorum or corporate sponsorship. These love stories are all of that.
One of these stories was sketched out in the obituary for Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the daughter of a 20-year-old Strom Thurmond and Carrie Butler, an 18-year-old African American maid in his family’s home in Aiken, South Carolina back in the 1920s.
Thurmond became a bulwark for southern racism as the governor of South Carolina, then a segregationist independent candidate for President in 1948 and, finally, he spent decades in the US senate. He lived to the ripe old age of 100. In all those 80 years since conceiving Ms Washington-Williams he never publicly recognized his daughter. Her mother died at age 38, the same year Thurmond ran for President. Washington-Williams was raised by an uncle and aunt in Pennsylvania. She never repudiated her biological father and met with him many times in private. He sent her money now and then and once responded to a Father’s Day card by writing:
“Dear Essie-Mae, Thank you for your fond remembrance on Father’s Day. Affectionately, Strom Thurmond.”
I was born in New Jersey but was raised in the redneck agricultural area in south Dade County below Miami. Interracial sex was always a heady brew to ponder for a white kid learning to deal with segregated water fountains and schools. I recall a saying that went around among adolescent males that you weren’t really a man “until you’d split a black oak.” Back when the youthful Thurmond exploited his family’s maid and, we must presume unwittingly, produced a child, this sort of power-based sexual vestige from the days of slavery and Jim Crow must have been strong.
Drama and literature show that the human heart is a complicated thing; no one expressed that better than Carson McCullers in her famous novel’s title, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Only the participants know what the real relationship was between a 20-year-old white son of a wealthy South Carolina lawyer and an 18-year-old African-American girl cleaning their home. This kind of story is, of course, not unusual when you consider the realities of sex, race and power throughout history.